HistoryBuff.com March 2010 Newsletter
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Early Use of the Insanity Plea in Court

The first attempted assassination of a United States President was Andrew Jackson. On January 30, 1835, Jackson had just finished attending a memorial service held in the Capitol building in Washington, DC. While walking across the rotunda, a man who seemed to come from nowhere, lurched in front of Jackson and fired a pistol at him. He was less than six feet away. Upon firing the gun, there was a loud explosion but the bullet misfired. The would-be assassin pulled out another pistol from his coat and fired again. The gun misfired again! By this time, a matter of seconds, several aides came to Jackson's rescue and were able to subdue the man. Later, upon checking the pistols at close range they both fired properly. What are the odds of both pistols misfiring when after the fact they both fired correctly?

The attempted assassin, Richard Lawrence, went to trial. The defense attorney attempted a "Not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity" viewpoint. The prosecutor objected highly to this direction of the trial and argued against the plea. By law, since Lawrence was found guiltily of attempted murder of a president, the sentence would have been death by hanging. The defense attorney pleaded with the jury to not hang his client, but have him committed to an asylum instead. Lawrence won as the jury voted in favor of committing Lawrence to an asylum for the rest of his life. It was this trial that set the legacy for a plea of not-guiltily-by-reason-of-insanity.

Oh, the prosecutor in this trial: Francis Scott Key of the Star Spangled Banner fame.

Topsy-turvy Winter

Over the past 43 years I have read thousands of pre-1900 newspapers. I read not only the coverage about major events in American history, but the not-so-important as well. Often, the esoteric proved more fascinating. One such article, of all topics, was about the weather. Along the east coast of the United States, the winter of 1815/1816 was backwards. That is, in December and January, Florida and Louisiana had several storms with snow reaching several inches and the temperature not rising above freezing for most of those two months. On the other hand, the upper United States such as Maine, New York, and Connecticut had temperatures in the 80s for December and January! Today they would blame global warming as the cause. In 1815/1816 there were no automobile, aerosol or factory emissions, etc. then what was the cause?

Night Writing

French Captain Charles Barbier, in the early 1800s, tried to develop a method military officers could use to read messages and orders in the dark while in battle. Lighting a torch, or even a match, to have enough light to read the message could very well alert the enemy to their whereabouts. Barbier developed a method of reading in the dark he called "night writing." The system consisted of a series of 12 raised dots, each arranged in a different pattern for various sounds in the language. To test the system out, he found a 13-year-old blind boy and taught him how the system worked.

The boy struggled to learn the system but ultimately failed. It was just too complicated to learn. Barbier gave up on further development of his "night writing" system. The boy, however, did not give up. Rather, he spent 2 years refining the system and ultimately cut the number of dots down to only 6, and instead of each grouping standing for various sounds in the language, he made each series represent one letter of the alphabet. His "new" system spread widely - and is still in use today. The boy’s name? Louis Braille.


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February Contest

CONTEST ONE QUESTION: In the long-running western TV series Gunsmoke, there is a character by the name of Doc Adams. What is this character's first name?

ANSWER: Galen.

CONTEST TWO QUESTION: Someone offers to sell you an ancient Roman coin bearing the date 54 BC. You decline because you know it is a fake. How did you know it was fake?

ANSWER: Any real coin could not bear the B.C. as part of the date. How would people know how many years it was BEFORE Christ would be born?

One-hundred-twelve people entered the contests. thirty-one people had errors in their entry. Most of the errors had either the incorrect subject heading or failure to pick a prize if they won. A few answered question one, but selected a prize from the contest two prize list, or the other way around. Two prizes were unclaimed.

The February Contest Winners Were:
  • John Blankenberger - Illinois
  • Clark Straubinger - New York
  • Jim Schucker - Virginia
  • BillieJean Fogle - Florida

This Issue's Questions:

To enter Contest One, answer the question: What were Conestoga wagons named after?

To enter Contest Two, answer the question: What was Annie Oakley's real name?

Contest Rules

  • Contest entry deadline is Thursday, March 18, 2010. Later entries will be disqualified. Winners will be notified by email within 48 hours after the contest deadline. Winners' names and states will be published in the next issue of the HistoryBuff.com newsletter.

  • To enter Contest One or Contest Two, email your answer to curator at historyreference.org

  • To enter Contest One, use "Contest One Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading and answer the Contest One question.

  • To enter Contest Two, use "Contest Two Entry" for the emailed contest entry subject heading and answer the Contest Two question. Any other subject heading will be disqualified.

  • Subscribers may enter both contests, but only win one prize.

  • If entering both contests, entries must be sent in separate emails.

  • If answering the Contest Two question, select your prize from the Contest Two prize list.

  • From subscribers entering the contest, submitting the correct answer, correct subject heading, submission received by the deadline, as well as advising which ONE contest prize they want to win, SIX will be selected to win ONE of the contest prizes below.

  • Subscribers to this newsletter that won a prize in my trivia contests in the last 90 days are ineligible to win.
March Contest One Prize

The Best of Johnny Carson

35 Classic Episodes - 23 Hours!

February Contest Two Prize Selection
(Only one of each offered)

DVD Movie

Two Johnny Cash Movies
Pride of Jesse Hallum (1981)
Five Minutes to Live (1961)


Make Room For Daddy

Classic Episodes of the 1960s TV Series

Original Historic Newspapers

Original New Hampshire Patriot And State Gazette historic newspaper from 1853

The Sun (Baltimore) historic newspaper from 1867

Original The Salem Gazette historic newspaper from 1878
That's it for this issue.

Rick Brown

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